In honor of National Nurses Week, I’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the many dedicated caregivers I have had the privilege of working with over the last 30 years. As part of that thank you, I would like to recognize the selfless mission of my nurse colleagues and all caregivers – while reminding each and every one of you that we must put on our own oxygen mask first.
“In case of emergency, air masks will drop from the ceiling. If you are traveling with a minor, please put on your own mask before helping the minor.”
With every airplane take-off, I hear this overhead message and find myself nodding in agreement. Shortly after the message concludes, I usually start to list out the reasons why I can’t put on my metaphorical oxygen mask first. The reasons are endless – and if I’m honest with myself, all of these excuses are unacceptable. Later, when I feel the physical effects of pushing beyond reasonable endurance yet again, I can’t help but ask myself: Why didn’t I put on the oxygen mask? Was it really that impossible?
In my experience, caring for others makes us realize how very lucky we are to have the strength and knowledge to be in a position to help others. However, this does not make us invincible. RN credentials do not make nurses immune to illness, suffering, and stress. I often see nurses sacrificing their own care needs in the service of helping others, but the reality is that when we deliver care without first putting on our oxygen masks, this results in hypoxia.
As every nurse knows, hypoxia is a condition in which the body tissues are starved of oxygen. The symptoms of this oxygen deprivation include lightheadedness, fatigue, nausea, trouble eating, trouble walking, confusion, disorientation, headaches, and behavioral changes. Do any of these sound like an ideal situation to be in when responsible for the care of another?
Although the oxygen mask on an airplane is a very literal example with extreme clinical consequences during loss of cabin pressure, there are many practical applications to our day-to-day lives. If we “push on” and care for others in environments without the appropriate support structures or while sacrificing our own health, do we not experience some of the clinical effects of hypoxia? The unfortunate reality is that we may already be experiencing all of the symptoms of hypoxia – and maybe even worse consequences.
As we take the time to reflect during National Nurses Week, I’d like to remind us all to prioritize self-care and to respectfully ask healthcare leaders to incorporate these essential components into their employee engagement strategies.
Best Practices for a Successful Caregiver Engagement Strategy
- Reinforce to caregivers that self-care is not selfish, but necessary. Allow them the time to recharge, recognizing that patient care requires physical and emotional effort.
- Set reasonable expectations around work performance. If the caregiver falls short of goals and objectives, do not assume it is because of lack of effort or competency. Dig deeper to ensure that the expectations were reasonable in the first place.
- To ensure that caregivers have the appropriate resources to do their jobs, follow up on the information obtained from observations and interviews with patients and other staff members.
- Use data to drive improvement. Data will help uncover opportunity areas for improvement. Pay attention to data trends and develop an action plan accordingly.
- Learn from positive patient stories, with the purpose of understanding why caregivers were able to have a positive impact. What were the interventions that the caregiver used to engage with the patients in a positive manner? How were they supported in that situation with the tools to do their jobs successfully?
- Likewise, learn from negative patient stories but approach the follow up as an opportunity to improve and provide corrective action and/or support. These actions do not have to be punitive. While there are situations that are negligent and must be addressed, be careful to clearly separate those situations.
- Recognize caregivers for a job well done. This can elevate the caregiver’s perceptions of self-confidence and esteem, optimism, hope, and resilience.
Breaking the Cycle to Build a Culture of Self-Care
Consider the scenario of a nurse at the end of a 12-hour shift who just cared for multiple patients with major clinical events that required the rapid response team, while managing satisfaction concerns from other patients and their family members. By the end of the shift, the nurse is feeling drained – and even when he or she feels they have given their all, someone will inevitably complain. Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, the nurse heads home to care for a sick child before preparing to get up tomorrow and do this all over again.
It is critical to give staff members enough time for breaks and to recharge. As much as we try to separate home and work, they will intersect, so working together as a healthcare team is essential. Should a scenario like this become the norm, it will become difficult for staff to stay positive and interact with patients and families in a way that is personalized and patient-centered.
Moments like these are inevitable, so it is even more important to recognize and appreciate nurses for the incredible impact they are making in the lives of others.
The Importance of Letting Staff Know Their Efforts are Appreciated
Creating a culture that promotes the idea of “putting your oxygen mask on first” also requires positive reinforcement. Staff satisfaction is impacted by many factors, but recognition is an essential component of a successful staff engagement strategy and promoting positive interactions between staff members and their patients. Meaningful recognition goes beyond a simple “thanks” or “great job” – it is a genuine acknowledgment of what the caregiver did and how their actions made a difference in the lives of others. Recognizing these contributions can help nurses reconnect with why they chose this profession and build one’s sense of pride regarding their work.
With Nurse Leader Rounding already embedded in many leading hospitals as a best practice, every round provides leaders with the amazing opportunity to ask patients if they would like to recognize one of their caregivers. Patients feel good when they can share their positive experiences. It is nourishment to the caregiver’s soul to know that they made a difference in the lives of their patients – to know that their efforts were seen and appreciated.
Recognition from co-workers is equally as powerful – sometimes even more so. A positive note from a coworker who observed the day’s events can have a tremendous impact on that nurse’s overall well-being. This thoughtful gesture can inspire the caregiver to continue their very important work of caring for others.
In reflecting upon my career, there are many shining examples of nurses at all levels going above and beyond to secure the best outcomes for their patients. This is a noble profession that requires both mental and physical strength. Self-care is not selfish. By putting on our oxygen mask first, we can extend the same compassion to ourselves and to each other that we show our patients in every interaction. This week and every week, I am proud to be a nurse. To all my nurse colleagues – I wish you and your teams a very Happy National Nurses Week. Thank you for all that you do for patients and their families.